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Why Thomas Jefferson was a Hypocrite

Updated on November 4, 2012

Was Thomas Jefferson a hypocrite?

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Thomas Jefferson was without a doubt one of the most important figures in American history. He is best known for writing the declaration of independence. Nearly every elementary student in the nation knows his name. He was gifted in the fields of architecture, politics, law, and even science. For all of this to be possible, he must have been somewhat of an iconic figure, right? Right, but the fact that he was a hypocrite cannot be overlooked.  Jefferson wrote about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, and claimed that “all men are created equal”, but held many slaves himself… (Declaration of Independence)

Upon researching this topic further, I found an interesting perspective given by one writer.

She says: “Taken out of context, portions of Jefferson's A View on the Rights of British America could be mistaken for excerpts of abolitionist literature. Jefferson writes, "The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state." He also writes, "History has informed us that the bodies of men as well as individuals are susceptible to the spirit of tyranny." Throughout the text, Jefferson repeatedly equates Britain's treatment of the colonies to a master's arbitrary oppression of slaves. Based on these strong statements, it seems that Jefferson would be staunch advocate of the physical and intellectual freedom of every person, regardless of creed, race, or religion.”  In reality, however, it is widely known that Jefferson did own slaves, and thus contradicted himself, again adding more evidence to the hypocrite argument. In Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on Slavery, he explains how blacks are equal to whites “by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination”, but this is where the quality ends. He then goes on to explain how they are inferior in the realm of winter survival. He later goes on to say, “For in a warm climate, no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him.” (Notes on Slavery) If Jefferson was in favor of emancipation, why did he own slaves himself? This question has yet to be answered.  Some say that he owned slaves because of his infamous debt, while others say that he really had no plan for emancipation and was simply bluffing. In a letter from Benjamin Banneker in1791, Banneker writes “however variable we may be in society, or religion, however diversified in situation or color, we are all of the same family, and stand in the same relation to him.” In his reply, Jefferson says “Nobody wishes more than I do, to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men…” (Letters) In this scenario, it is almost as if Jefferson is siding with Banneker against the issue of slavery. But what about his slaves? It seems as if the last argument for the idea that Thomas Jefferson was an abolitionist lies in the fact that he had a child with one of his slaves. Although this fact proves that he did not see blacks aesthetically inferior, it still shows no real proof that he wanted the slaves to be free.

In the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson says, “Determined to keep open a market where men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.” (Rough Draft) The fact that there had been a call for abolition in the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence shows that Jefferson was bluffing. He knew that the southern states were going to strike his attempt down, and so he was quick to show his fellow delegates how righteous he was. Again, in a letter to John Holmes, Jefferson states that “I can say, with conscious truth, that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would to relieve us from this heavy reproach.” (Letter to John Holmes). In my personal opinion, Jefferson was a hypocrite. Saying that we should relieve ourselves from this burden, and calling for abolition, then turning your head and seeing slaves, the very burden about which you are writing makes you a hypocrite. If it does not, I do not know what would. Thomas Jefferson had a child with Sally Hemings for reasons unknown to us today. It is known that he had had a relationship with her, but the extent of this relationship was not known until recently.  This fact adds even more fuel to the abolitionist fire, but it is still not reason enough to consider Thomas Jefferson a man of his word, or an abolitionist.

Thomas Jefferson was a man commendable for many of reasons, but he was unsuccessful in using the opportunity to guide America into a new age, an age of freedom. If his reason for owning slaves was financial, or if he felt that blacks were inferior, we will never know. Most likely, all of these factors combined lead to his situation. Unfortunately for him, Jefferson failed to practice his belief in equality in freedom when it came to his slaves. Because of the inconsistency in the field of slavery, and his contradicting words and actions, Thomas Jefferson was a hypocrite.


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      5 years ago

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      5 years ago

      To the above poster, Sally Hemmings was his late Wife's half sister, not his Mothers half sister.

      With that said, people seem to think having a Child with Sally Hemmings is some evidence of Abolitionist sentiment. Well, how? It meants he had sex with her. I know we want ot look up to him as a Great Man and all but, just because he had a sexual relationship with his slave doesn't mean he had a Romantic Relationship with her. He exploited her for his own pleasure, like many Slavemaster did, and kept his own Children in slavery.

      Jefferson was really not someone I like, as he was a liar willing to tar anyone for his own ambitions. he tarred King George the Third, often with things that weren't' true, and even his Draft about the Kings support for slavery isn't True as King George was an abolitionist. he later tarred George Washington and John Adams to advance his own Political career.

      He was a Politician, and that's why he acted as he did.

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      Norm Williams 

      9 years ago

      Jefferson tells us in "Notes on Virginia" and other writings that he believed in strict segragation of the races. He deplored the possiblity of an "amalgum" which would be brought on through integration.

      This view perhaps does the most damage to Jefferson's character, for in the deepest regions of his nature he knew these words were false. He not only had intimate relations with his slave, Sally Hemmings--his mother's half sister--but produced mulatto children in direct opposition to his firmly stated beliefs.

      In his time, Jefferson was known to be both an ideologue and a prevaricator. In his "Anas" Jefferson tells of how he, while serving as Secretary of State, hired the nefarious Phillip Freneau, to work at a nominal position within the Department, and in his abundant spare time publish a newspaper devoted to undermining the Washington administration. He even brags of how some of these articles, personnally defaming the President, enraged the General, and yet the Secretary went on to praise the good service provided by Freneau in his endeavor to damage the President's reputation. He was, it seems, a rather mean-spirited and petty little man in addition to being a gifted writer and politician.

      See John Marshall's biography of Washington and other contemporary descriptions of his character. Charles Lee also wrote a short work devoted to Jefferson's slander of his relative, the great General Lee of the Revolutionary War.

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      9 years ago

      Thomas Jefferson did not believe that blacks were equal to whites in matters of reason or imagination, here is the full quote from the text.

      "Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous. It would be unfair to follow them to Africa for this investigation."(Notes On Slavery)

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      Howard Schneider 

      9 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      I agree with you that Thomas Jefferson was hypocritical in the instances that you have mentioned. I do believe that he believed the things he was saying about slavery and was lying to himself. His lifestyle was hooked on slavery and all he could do was write anti-slavery platitudes. Jefferson also could have freed his slaves upon his or his children's deaths but didn't because he was heavily in debt due to profligate spending on Monticello. He also was cowardly in using newspaper surrogates such as James Callender to do his political mudslinging. This boomeranged on him when Callender was refused a position in Jefferson's government. Callender's poison pen was then aimed at Jefferson. Jefferson also condemned all of Alexander Hamilton's economic institutions but kept them as president because he found they worked efficiently and not corruptly. Finally he espoused strict constitutional constructionism and then went out and made the Louisiana Purchase deal. It was a great deal and the right thing to do but he never admitted the inconsistency. Jefferson was a complex man. I beleive his hypocrisies bring down his greatness several pegs but he is still impressive. Great Hub.


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